Oil painting on a budget.

Is it possible to paint something awesome without expensive art supplies?

Many artists who read my weekly blog posts or follow our Facebook page ask “do I need all those brushes, paints and supplies? I want to create beautiful paintings, but I just can’t afford everything you’ve recommended. Paints and brushes are expensive – can I start with less?”

Yes, of course you can!

Gold Rush

Gold Rush 30×40 – oil painting by Bill Inman

I don’t think the creative spirit can be contained, and it does NOT require specific art supplies to thrive. There’s always a way, especially for inventive, imaginative artists.

Let me share some ideas I’ve come across over the years for using inexpensive or minimal art supplies that will allow anyone to paint and learn on a tight budget.

Ideas for Painting on a Tight Budget

Paper Bags Anyone?

Have you painted on a brown paper bag before?

Money, or the lack thereof, should NEVER be a reason not to paint!

Stop worrying about expensive materials and simply get started. You can add to your materials over time.

Whether you’re in art school or learning at home, the most important thing is mileage. Produce as many paintings as possible in the shortest amount of time you can manage.

To help you with that concept, instead of shopping for the best quality linen canvas, experiment with materials you probably already have. Keep in mind – these are not meant for selling – they are intended to speed up your learning curve while sparing your budget. Oil paints on paper will eventually rot and discolor the paper (think of old newspapers).

Here are a few ideas to get your mind running:

  1. Brown paper bags from the grocery store (free)
  2. Cardboard (often free if you look behind office supply stores)
  3. Large sheets of inexpensive stiff drawing paper
  4. Watercolor paper (can be cut easily into smaller pieces)
  5. Matt board (scraps you may have lying around)
  6. Manila File Folders (you can get a box of 100 for $10 at Staples. Cut them in half and that’s a nickel for an 8×11 inch painting surface. Plus, they are a nice color for your underpainting).


Manila folders that can be used for oil painting studies for about 5 cents each

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but hopefully it will get you started.

Coat the paper products with Shellac ($14 at Walmart), PVA glue or size, discount paint or primer at the hardware store or acrylic gesso (primer). You don’t actually need to prime any of them, but it can make it a bit nicer to paint on since the paint doesn’t sink into the paper as much.

Why paint on surfaces that you can’t sell and that might deteriorate over time? Then again, I once framed a piece of disposable palette paper after a painting session. The colors I mixed looked like a beautiful abstract painting and I liked it so much I framed it. A friend came by and he liked it so much he bought it! So you never know I guess.

Mastering art is about painting over and over again and experimenting until the principles sink in. When we paint on expensive surfaces like linen, we are often afraid to experiment because we don’t want to ‘waste’ the material.

With inexpensive surfaces like paper there are several benefits, like being easy to cut into multiple sizes, light to transport outdoors, and they’re cheap! Plus, they are easy to find around the house.

And the greatest benefit of all is that we won’t be afraid to mess up (over and over).

Using cheaper materials allows us to test every technique and idea that comes to us (and not feel bad about shrinking bank accounts). We can get mileage. Make an effort to paint 300 paintings in a year and you will see dramatic strides in your skills and mastery of oil painting.

Child’s Play – oil painting on hot-pressed illustration board by Bill Inman

Child’s Play – oil painting on hot-pressed illustration board by Bill Inman

Child’s Play was an oil painting I did for illustration class on hot-pressed illustration board. It’s more than 30 years old and hasn’t yellowed or rotted away – and no, I did not prime the paper surface.

Limited Palettes and Brushes

Dennis Sheehan – Two Colors and a Brush

Dennis Sheehan is a Master Artist who creates beautiful Tonalist paintings.

Sunset Glow 16x29 Oil painting by Dennis Sheehan

Sunset Glow 16×29 Oil painting by Dennis Sheehan

He has finished entire paintings with just a 1 ½ inch Benjamin Moore Sash hardware brush; Phthalo Green and Transparent Oxide Red paint; and Linseed Oil for a medium (Pale Drying Oil from Grumbacher – which adds a drying agent to the Linseed to speed up drying time – not something I would recommend).

Dennis’s other supplies included a $2 16×20 inch cotton canvas from Michaels (as mentioned in his Facebook video) and Bounty paper towels (which he used as a brush to move and remove paint).

Here’s a live painting demo Dennis did on Facebook:

Now, using just two colors may limit the subject matter a bit, but for those on a pauper’s budget, it shows you the possibilities. Using two colors and a brush is a great way to work on principles like expressive design and simplified value patterns without breaking the bank.

Also, Dennis doesn’t use only two colors for all of his work.

Golden Hour 36x60 Oil Painting by Kathleen Dunphy framed

Golden Hour 36×60 Oil Painting by Kathleen Dunphy framed

Kathleen Dunphy – Six Colors and a few Brushes 

Kathleen started limiting her palette to six colors about 15 years ago. She loves it.

A limited palette helps to mix the colors she sees for a more accurate hue rather than reaching for a paint tube that is ‘close enough’.  She says it’s also easier to recognize and mix correct color temperatures using fewer pigments. Instead of fumbling with a lot of different warm and cools she simply adds yellow to warm the color or blue to cool it.

As for brushes, she recommends using just one brush as long as possible and limits her plein air painting trips to only four or five brushes that she takes with her.

Kathleen’s palette: Titanium White (any brand), Cadmium Yellow Lemon (Gamblin or Utrecht), Permanent Red Medium (Rembrandt), Ultramarine Blue Deep (Rembrandt), Naples Yellow Deep (Rembrandt) and Cold Gray (Rembrandt).

You don’t have to use every color that I have on my palette to paint beautiful works of art.  Experiment with just a few colors and see what you achieve.

You don’t have to use every color that I have on my palette to paint beautiful works of art.  Experiment with just a few colors and see what you achieve.

Low-Cost Oil Painting Brushes

Brushes don’t have to be expensive. Keep in mind that good quality brushes are an investment that can last a long time – sometimes a lifetime. Some of the brushes I use regularly are over 10 years old. Other brushes can be thought of as disposable.

Value pack of paint brushes from Micheals – sold for about $5

Clyde Aspevig buys boxes of cheap bristle filberts because he wears them down quickly and doesn’t want to be tempted to treat them carefully. Throughout the 90’s he was producing over 300 paintings a year with many as large as 60×70.

He paints fast and puts his brushes to task.

view of west creek ranch

View of West Creek Ranch 40×60 – oil painting by Clyde Aspevig

A good-sized brush from Home Depot or Lowes can range from $2 to $20. The problem with the cheap brushes is they tend to lose hairs readily, but for painting studies it might not be a big deal.

Another option is … drum roll please … toilet paper!

I saw a show in the 70’s about a fellow who could finish four seascape paintings an hour using just toilet paper for brushes which he sold at auction for around $60 each. He didn’t even buy the toilet paper – he took it from hotel restrooms (definitely not a recommendation).

I searched toilet paper seascapes and found out his name was Morris Katz – coined ‘the world’s fastest painter’.

Morris Katz Oceanic Seagull 10x8 toilet paper

Morris Katz Oceanic Seagull 10×8 toilet paper

A paintbrush is simply a way to move paint around and create textures and details. There are all kinds of tools that can accomplish the task, like palette knives and credit cards. Use whatever tools are available until you can add to your supplies.

Bare Minimum Supplies for Light Travel

Here are the bare minimum supplies I use when I want to travel light (or just for the challenge):

  1. Paints – Titanium White, Phthalo Green, Cad Lemon, Alizarin Crimson Permanent, Ultramarine Blue
  2. Brushes – Long Flat Hog Bristle size 12 (like a Rosemary Ultimate), an extra-long Filbert or Egbert size 6, and a Mongoose substitute like a Rosemary Masters Series 279 size 6. A Rosemary Ultimate Long Flat Size 12, a Classic Egbert Size 6 and a Long Flat Series 279 size 6 oil painting brushes
  3. For painting studies – watercolor paper (left over from my college days), any of the papers mentioned earlier, or a couple of ABS plastic panels (no particular size, although I often go with 12×16 inch panels).
  4. No medium (like walnut oil) if I’m traveling light since it’s far from a necessity. Good quality oil paint is generally good to go right out of the tube.
  5. No Turpenoid Naturals because I clean my brushes when I get back. Going without anything to clean my brushes forces me to think clearly about my strokes and simplify the colors and shapes.
  6. A palette knife – maybe – not a necessity.
  7. My easel and palette. Although, I have painted using a foam plate for a palette and the painting on a picnic table.

My backpack holds all my plein air equipment and then some!

See, it doesn’t take much. The variety on my studio palette is for convenience, especially when I’m painting flowers. Painting landscapes on location doesn’t require nearly as many colors. I tend to use the same number of colors simply because I like to, not because I have to.

Not worried about a budget? Check out the Professional Oil Painter’s Supplies List


If your budget is limited or you are just beginning to learn oil painting, use any materials you can get a hold of. The point is to get started and paint as much as possible – I challenge you to go for 300 paintings the first year.

I challenge you to go for 300 paintings the first year.

When you’re first learning, paint with abandon, letting your emotions guide you. Concentrate on simple shapes and keep the details to a minimum.

As you grow in confidence begin to add details that stand out prominently or that give the scene energy and clarity. Practice the Sight/Size method of painting until you can perfectly render the colors and values of any scene in front of you.

Play with different sizes from tiny 3×5 paintings to 24×30 or larger. I also recommend painting from life as exclusively as you can.

Now, keep in mind that most of these ideas are meant to help develop your skills as an oil painter – not necessarily for selling work in galleries. But as you complete more and more paintings you will notice your ability to observe nuances in nature grow stronger and keener. You will begin to recognize subtle shifts in values and colors. You’ll distinguish differences in color temperatures.

Within a short time, you will be more than ready to apply your mastery to other surfaces like linen because your art sales will pay for all the canvas, paint and brushes you need.

Now get to it – Happy Painting!

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